Advance Acoustic (AA) is clearly committed to driving down the price of heavyweight hi-fi. With its first transport and DAC combo it has delivered a near-20kg CD player for little over a grand. If sound were measured by mass, this would represent a milestone. As things stand, though, weight does at least infer solidity of construction and that's something that these two boxes are clearly strong on.
At the dawn of high-end CD players, every company who wanted to be seen as a major contributor had a two-box transport and DAC (digital to analogue converter) at the top of its range. The theory being based on that which encourages bigger amplifiers to be split into preamp and power amp cases.
Separating out the noise producing disc reading part of the equation from the subtle conversion process, should enable the latter in particular to do a better job. You also end up with separate power supplies for each, which is a good thing, and you get to sell a bigger and thus more impressive looking player overall.
To DAC or not?
This approach went out of fashion, however, when it was discovered that 'jitter' (the arch enemy of good digital audio) usually increased when the signal had to travel from one box
to another. A problem in the mid-nineties when hip brands started to make high-end single-box players. Of late, however, the standalone DAC, or amplifier with on-board DAC has seen a revival, and now one or two companies are putting a toe in the 'separate transport' water.
This approach makes a great deal of sense, because it's now possible to re-clock the signal when it comes into the DAC. This means that jitter problems introduced by the division can be eliminated and the advantages of the approach more readily appreciated.
Advance Acoustic is a Franco-Chinese operation, which makes very substantial electronics for the asking price, and this new pairing is no different. Both of these components come in full-size casework supported by large aluminium spike feet.
The display on the DAC appears to have been inspired by the Disney film Tron and is a shade extrovert, but it does, at least, tell you which input is selected. There are a few to choose from including two optical, three coax and one AES/EBU on an XLR connector. It should, therefore, be possible to run all your digital sources including DAB tuners and digiboxes through the DAC. Inside the casework there are two 24-bit/384kHz converter chips which can produce a balanced or single ended output from a valve powered output stage as is Advance Acoustic's style.
The MCD 403 transport is inevitably more straightforward with outputs that include AES/EBU. It has the ability to drive long (100m) interconnects, if used with an appropriate 110ohm twisted pair, shielded cable. A reflection of the build quality is the way that the drawer opens and closes in such smooth fashion - we've seen players at twice the price that can't do this.
Probably due to the limited lifespan of the valves both units automatically power down over a period of time and the power lights turn from blue to red. They can be easily re-awakened by the remote handset, which covers all the usual functions.
As mentioned earlier, both units have large pointed feet, the sort that will mark a wooden surface, so AA has had the foresight to provide little metal and rubber receptors to cushion them. As we've found with previous AA components, these receptors also improve the sound when the unit is placed on a glass shelf, so don't leave them in the box.
The listening was done with a length of Trichord coaxial interconnect between transport and DAC (this an additional expense as AA don't actually supply any cables). We started out using the single ended outputs and found much to enjoy in the result, the pairing has one distinctly valve style quality in its tremendous sense of openness. Pretty well everything you play seems more spacious and offers up excellent details of instrument timbre, including the way in which a drum is struck or a guitar plucked.
The other side of this sonic coin is that the bass is not quite as weighty or substantial as it is with solid state output stages, there's plenty of kick in the bass, but it is easier to hear the reverberant character of the venue or studio than it is to feel it in your stomach.
We wanted to see how the pairing compared with a standalone player of similar price but, in the absence of an exact price match, resorted to the Cambridge's Azur 840C, the top ranking £500 to £1,000 player from our 2007 Awards. There was no doubt that the 403 delivers more sparkle and life especially through the midrange. It also very accomplished with the tonal character of voices and instruments.
An older machine from Sony, the XA-333ES (£1,200), put forward a stronger case for the single-box cause. It has a calmer and smoother sound with a more precise sense of timing and more subtle dynamics.
You can't hear what the cymbals are doing quite as readily as the AA reveals, but it's a balance that will go louder with greater ease. Going over to the AA it becomes apparent that there is a subtle enlivening effect going on that emphasises any sense of spaciousness in a recording and makes things seem a bit more lively than is strictly the case.
While there is little, if anything, in the way of competition for the MCD 403 transport there are a few DACs on the market and one of the best is the little DAC-1 from Russ Andrews. £50 dearer than the MDA 503, it delivers more weight and power through the bass but hasn't the midrange vivacity.
The transport would, therefore, appear to be the best performer in this pairing, although the MDA 503 is a lively and revealing DAC in tonal terms it does not get to the heart of the music as well as one might hope. At this price level, it's debateable whether two boxes are going to be able to compete against single chassis designs. But the transport, however, is excellent value.