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Tuner group test - Conclusion

Article Index
Tuner group test
NAD C422
Creek T50
Cambridge Audio 640T
Pure DRX 702ES
Arcam DT91
NTL/Pace Di1000
Leak Troughline 3
Conclusion
All Pages

 

CONCLUSION

In conceptualising this weird and wonderful sweep through the world of radio past and present, analogue and digital, tube and transistor, we could instantly anticipate the cries of "foul" and "you’re not comparing like with like"! Well, this is precisely what we wanted to do, to give a real sense of perspective on how all these different designs, technologies, formats and philosophies correlate. Now it’s time to unpick it all, and come up with some useful buying advice.

 

So on this page, we’re looking at how the moderns stack up against one another, and on page 25 we’ll see how the best of this group stacks up against the three classic designs from Yamaha, Sansui and Revox, and finally how the winning modern and the winning classic rates against our all time fave rave and reference, the GT Audio Leak Trough Line. Confused? Hopefully you won’t be if you read on…

 

Of the modern tuners, the £330/399 Pure Digital DRX 702ES is very nicely made and easy to use. It has an excellent front panel, eschewing the typically messy button count typically found on some hi-fi equipment. The rotary tuning knob was also excellent. The display was a disappointment though, because it wasn’t as easily legible from a distance, and the sound as a whole while well-timed was ultimately disappointing through both DAB and FM for the price, especially when compared to the £199.95 Cambridge.

 

The Arcam DT91 is a very agreeable instrument in both sound and use, especially its display and rotary tuning knob which were the best of the whole group. It had warmth, high resolution and a good spatial sound quality to all music. It also really shined with DAB where it produced a very good and listenable sound, without any of the splashy and sibilant artefacts normally associated with DAB.

 

The £199.95 Cambridge Azur 640T is my top choice for the hybrid tuners, as it was excellent in all the important areas and at a very reasonable price. Design, build and usability was first-rate while the sound quality for both FM and DAB was brilliant - almost comparable (on FM) to the higher priced analogue tuners in the group, let alone exceeding its own hybrid tuner competitors.

 

The only fly in its (and all the other Digital Radio tuners’) ointment was the performance of the NTL/ Pace Di1000. Its sound was shockingly good for such a lowly device, as it isn’t designated as a genuine hi-fi component. Dynamic, vibrant and rhythmical – and all this through its own ‘cheap as chips’ analogue outputs, let alone feeding a serious hi-fi DAC. There’s nothing magic about the NTL/ Pace, it’s simply that the bitrates are significantly higher, so we’re listening less to the antique MP2 compression technology and more to the music…

 

Of the analogue tuners, the £129.99 Denon did an excellent job for the asking price; it was nicely ergonomic, precise in action and tuning, while the sound quality was warm, dynamic and very enjoyable. However the dated styling and small lightweight casework will unwittingly put off some as they might wrongly consider it to be a cheap and nasty pseudo-hi-fi tuner which in performance terms at least – it clearly is not.

 

The £189.95 NAD C422 is a nicely built and finished tuner with an entirely unflappable and neutral sound quality. It initially hides its light under a bushel, but beyond immediacy, proves to be a consummate performer, able to handle all the dynamics and subtlety with an unflustered verve. It has excellent timing too. The only disappointment is its faux rotary tuning knob! It provides tough price and performance competition for both the Denon and Cambridge, and many will find it a brilliant mix of serious value and serious performance.

 

The £550 Creek T50 is an awesome tuner, with an unfailingly high-quality, high-resolution sound that is commensurate with its asking price. It has a well finished and attractive front panel with clearly legible display and superb rotary tuning knob – making it a delight to operate and listen to. The rest of the Creek’s finish does not look worthy of its price, and like the Denon this may wrongly put some potential purchasers off before they have heard it. However it is clear that Creek have spent all their effort on what is inside the T50 and as such the sound quality is deservedly brilliant.

 

Indeed, the only tuner that comprehensively outclassed the Creek (and in some areas it was closer than we expected) was the £800 GTA Leak Trough Line 3 Stereo. Of course, we’re not comparing like with like – I’m sure a slide rule-wielding reader will write in to point out that the Leak cost £600 or so in real terms when new, and you have to add the extra £700-800 of mods to that. But it’s still a valid £800 purchasing option now, and so we had to include it. It shows us that the Creek is the best ‘real world’ tuner available new today, and how deeply refined and finessed a design the T50 is. It also shows us that FM radio is capable of more still, and – fascinatingly, that it always was capable of that, too. Our only sadness is that ye olde terrestrial FM won’t be with us forever in this country – try and hear one before it goes – and/or try and stop the switch off.

 

AND IN THE END...

 

Impressive and convenient as the digital designs were – particularly the Cambridge Audio 640T – ultimately they just weren’t on the pace in the sonic stakes. There are two reasons for this; first they’re hidebound by the risible bitrates they’re forced to work with, and second, in this test they were up against some of the best tuners ever made…

 

At the final reckoning, it was analogue that delivered the sonic goods; all else (Auto tuning, remote controls, etc.) was just a distraction. Even the budget priced Denon proffered a warm and relaxing way to listen to music, and flatters commercial FM stations with their hideous compression and spiky signals. The NAD is a brilliant design, its problem being that it uncomfortably falls between two stalls in this particular group test – it’s neither the best value nor the best. This doesn’t negate the fact that for many – who, sensibly perhaps, don’t want to invest in a format that apparently has already had its death warrant signed by Her Majesty’s Government – it is all they could ever want. It has real incision, space, depth and balance, and makes the Denon sound dull. Finally, the Creek is sublime – as befits the latest descendent of the brilliant 3140 and T40 designs.

 

So then to the real point of this elaborate group test, which is to find out how our modern champion, the Creek T50, compares to both our reference Leak Trough Line and the three nineteen seventies classics from Yamaha, Sansui and Revox?

 

Well, first, the Revox doesn’t compare with it – which may raise the eyebrows of those who’ve just taken out a second mortgage to purchase a middling example off eBay. By all criteria, the T50 betters the B760; it is more sensitive, quieter and offers dramatically warmer and more insightful sound. Oh, and as a wounding aside, it’s much easier to use too. Only the Revox’s superlative build and finish give any justification for its existence…

 

How then does it compare with the Yamaha and Sansui? Here, we start to talk in terms of things being different, not better. On a good day, with a good signal, there’s little to choose between the CT-7000 and TU-9900. Ultimately I’d say the latter is better, but the Yamaha’s sublime styling and ergonomics pull some ground back for it. Either way, the Creek lacks some of the warmth (nee euphony?) of these classic designs, and some of the dimensionality too. Whether the Yam and Sansui are pushing the stereo image artificially wide, or if the Creek is compressing it, is debatable, but there’s definitely the sense that the ‘modern’ sounds more constrained and shut in, yet better focused. Indeed, the Creek tells you all about where the instruments and vocals are within the mix and/or recorded acoustic, whereas the Sansui and Yam are more vague.

 

Interestingly then, we’re beginning to reach some kind of parity. The Creek is detailed and transparent, the two Japanese classics more expansive and euphonic. In some ways, many will plump for the latter character, as it’s more beguiling and has that special something about it. Yet we come back to the fact that the Creek has a far more sensitive front end, and will pull in distant stations with less hiss and whistles. (It’s interesting to note that the Creek is by no means exceptional in this respect by today’s standards, it’s just that the standards of thirty years ago were dramatically poorer. Note also that the Japanese classics were the best and most sensitive tuners around, back then…)

 

So, ideally what we’d want would be the size and scale of the classic Japanese designs allied to the precision of the Creek...

Enter the GT Audio Leak Trough Line Stereo (with Audiophile decoder). This is, quite simply, one of the most arresting sounding hi-fi products we’ve ever heard. I’d put it up there in the great scheme of audio things with Quad’s ESL-57 or Yamaha’s NS1000M loudspeaker, Nakamichi’s CR-7E cassette deck, Garrard’s 301/401 turntables or Koetsu’s Rosewood Signature cartridge. It does everything superbly, and most of this so sublimely that – even though it does err from perfection in a few respects, you hardly ever notice.

 

The amazing thing about the Trough Line (in Graham Tricker’s heavily modded form) is that it just doesn’t sound like hi-fi. Switch it on, give it about twenty minutes to warm through, and watch the soundstage balloon in front of your very ears. Bass is so supple, fluid and tuneful, midband so dimensional, detailed, articulate and treble so sweet (to be fair to the very neutral Yamaha CT-7000, for ‘sweet’ read ‘coloured’) that you find yourself listening and listening and listening to the radio – to programmes and/or music you’d previously never bothered with – just for the fun of it. It has the capacity to make music magic, which is just how it should be.



 

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