Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Emoti-Wah: Emotiva ERC-1 CD Player Reviewed

There are CD players and then there are CD players.  Since Play It Clear is an affordable audio site (by and large), the likes of the dCS Scarlati are not likely to find its way into the Play It Clear labs (aka my bedroom).  But that doesn't mean we deprive ourselves of quality digital sources in our quest for budget audio nirvana.  

One CD player that has been attracting a lot of chatter on the interwebs and among the audiophile community is the Emotiva ERC-1, from the relatively new internet-direct American company known primarily for its amplification products.  On the one hand are its die-hard loyalists who claim this is the finest digital source since sliced bread, and on the other are a group of people determined to knock Emotiva's credentials by means fair and foul.  

Such a polarising company and product would mean a reviewer would need to detach himself from all his biases before embarking upon a review.  I am incapable of doing that.  So i'll do the next best thing.  I'll disclose my biases.  Before setting eyes on the Emotiva ERC-1 I'd never seen, touched, felt or heard an Emotiva product, and had no views on it, but what has shaped a bias in their favour is the fact that most of the people trying to run them down on internet forums appear to be morons.  Their arguments are illogical, their positions untenable and their approach stinks of an ulterior motive.  So, quite illogically, I was inclined to believe that Emotiva was probably doing a few things right.

Packaging and Appearance

Unfortunately I was not able to see the packaging in which the ERC-1 is provided, but I understand that it is well packed in a solid box with enough damping material to ensure that you can check in the unit at the airport without too much concern.   The unit itself is hefty, weighing in at about 8 kgs (and not 10 as I mistakenly mentioned in my video preview).   The construction is solid, with the panels not showing any signs of flex, and the materials and surfaces exuding a quality feel.  

The appearance is a bit of a divisive topic.  I am not a fan of the extreme looks of the device and the Emotiva line-up in general, all blue LEDs and flashing lights, but I know people who have described it as gorgeous, so I guess it's highly subjective.  It's not going to please everyone, that's for sure.  The remote on the other hand is a thing of beauty.  It's a chunky piece of aluminium that's a joy to see, hold and operate.  The only un-joyful aspect is having to unscrew the six screws on the backplate with a philips screwdriver, to install the batteries.  

The back has a couple of RCA outs, a set of balanced outs, optical and coaxial digital outs and an IEC power socket, for you to use your schmancy after-market power cord that costs more than the ERC-1 itself.  


This is where this player departs from every CD player I've ever used.  Firstly it's a slot loader.  I have a slot-loading CD player in my car.  It acts up,  scratches CDs, swallows them and refuses to spit them out.  I don't like slot-loaders.  The mavens at Emotiva claim that this is no ordinary slot-loader.  They claim that upon the CD being placed in the slot, 12 vestal virgins gently caress the disc into place for playing.  Or something like that.  The short point being that it won't scratch your CDs. Ever.  I have no way of verifying that but I can tell you that operating it feels quite odd.  

Firstly, unlike my car stereo there's some felt material at the slot, so as soon as you put the CD in it's already touching something, so that's odd feeling no. 1.  Then the CD comes up against an obstacle of some sort, and there's a split second between encountering the obstacle and the vestal virgins doing their thing, so that is odd feeling no. 2.  Then it makes a noise while dragging the CD in and then flashes a 'loading' message for what seems like an eternity.  On some discs as much as 20+ seconds.  That's odd feeling no. 3.  

So overall, it feels strange to operate.  Perhaps once you get used to it you'll be comfortable.  But it definitely takes some getting used to. No deal-breaker, but worth keeping in mind.


The ERC-1 uses an Analog Devices AD1955 DAC chip, which is the top of the heap among the audio DAC chips offerred by Analog Devices, one of the leaders in the field.  It supports a 24-bits, 192 kHz sample rate, and SACD playback.  The former is utilised in the ERC-1 while the latter is not.  In addition to this, Emotiva claims to have used top quality op-amps and components, and discrete power supplies for the transport, display, and the digital and analogue sections.  The specs aside let's move on to the listening.

The following test CDs (among others) were used to evaluate the Emotiva ERC-1.

Donald Fagen - Morph the Cat
Michael Jackson - Thriller
Usher Demo CD 1 and 2
Dire Straits - Love Over Gold
Haydn's Symphony No. 104 - Vienna Philharmonic - Herbert Von Karajan
Steely Dan - Aja
First things first.  This is a FAST CD player.  The Pace Rhythm and Timing on this player is something else.  The notes don't hang around for a micro-second longer than they need to, the leading edges of notes are sharp and well defined and the timing and assuredness on offer are exceptional.  You just need to switch back to another CD  player (such as my fully modded CD63SE which is a very good CD player in itself) to understand the contrast.  This makes the sound tremendously realistic and well defined.  

Add to this some superb dynamics.  Both macro and micro dynamics are handled with consummate ease, whether it's the subtle nuances of a solo vocal performance or the immense adventures of a philharmonic orchestra, the sheer natural-ness of the dynamics of the performance as reproduced by the ERC-1 is soul-stirring.  While the idea of 'taking you closer to the live performance' is a much abused and somewhat misguided goal among audiophiles, the ERC-1 does accomplish some of it and boy is it fun!

Add to this the prodigious levels of detail, the superb imaging and soundstage and beautifully well-defined textures of all the notes from the cellos and kick drums, through the voices and guitars right up to the cymbals and hi-hats, and it's really really hard to find a flaw in this player.  The sound is transparent, no 'warmth' or added 'body', but at the same time the voices are substantial and life-like.  Cellos sound deep and melancholy, mark knopfler's electric guitar crackles with life and energy, and everything is good in the world.  

I could really go on and on about the sound of this CD player, but I'd be repeating myself.  The short point is that this is a glorious sounding CD player with fabulous PRaT, dynamics, detail, sonic texture and imaging.  When you consider the fact that this sells for 399 USD (369 this very moment on account of a holiday discount), it's quite something.  This is a CD player that sounds like it's worth at least a 1000 USD, if not much more!  It handily bested my fully-modded CD63SE and left me with a very strong upgrade-itch that I need to combat.  I have heard many budget CD players including the stalwarts from Marantz, NAD and Cambridge Audio and while they are all quite good in their own ways, they don't quite hold a candle to the Emotiva ERC-1 (i haven't compared them all in the same setup, but I think with a number of reference points, it's not hard to make this evaluation, the ERC-1 is that good).  If you imported all the way to India paying shipping and duty it would still be value for money.  Perhaps not the screaming steal it is like if you can get a friend or relative to bring it down from the US, but still an excellent deal. 

 So what are you waiting for?     

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Emotiva ERC-1 CD Player - Video Preview

This is a quick video preview of the Emotiva ERC-1 CD Player.  The review will follow over the weekend.  Apologies for the execrable quality of the production and the video itself.  Hopefully things will improve as I get a bit more experience doing this.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review : Topping TP20 Mark 2 - Audiophile Amplifier for Rs. 4000 / 80 USD

The Topping TP 20 Mark 2 - Front View

The headline sounds about as ambitious and unrealistic as some of the spam that you receive that promises to 'enhance your manhood' in '6 weeks flat.'  Audiophile amplification is meant to cost at the very least tens of thousands of rupees at the 'budget end'.  When a budget minded audiophile sets out to put together a stereo setup he will be led by the 'experts' to look at either a Marantz PM5003,  a Cambridge Audio 350A, an NAD C316BEE, or a Denon PMA510-AE, in the amplifier department.  All these are beautifully built units with in-built linear power supplies, multiple inputs, a remote control, and they all cost in the region of Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000.   
They are all good performers in their own right, providing good sonic value along the traditional parameters.  You would be forgiven if you believed that this is as cheap, and as good as stereo amplification gets.   

This is where the Tripath chip comes in.  Tripath was a company started by inventor-entrepreneur Adya Tripathi in the USA, that manufactured these revolutionary digital amplification chips that provided very high levels of efficiency and performance at a very low cost.  These chips found their way into many consumer electronics products by the big-box brands, but more importantly found a passionate fan following amongst the audiophile community.  Tripath, unfortunately, went out of business, with a large inventory of the chips still lying with them.

This large inventory was snapped up by various people including several Chinese companies, for peanuts.  

Enter Topping.  These guys evidently picked up a whole bunch of tripath chips including the celebrated TA2020 chip, that has found its way into the Topping TP20 amplifier.   The TP20 is available for order on ebay, for roughly 80 USD including a 12v, 5A power supply and shipping to your doorstep anywhere in the world.    

Packaging and Appearance

The amp comes by air mail from Hong Kong, well packed in a cardboard box with foam lining.  The amp itself is very well constructed. It's shockingly tiny. About 5 inches deep, 3 inches wide and an inch and half tall on its four rubber feet. The unit features a well built metal case, machined aluminium faceplate, good looking volume pot and power switch, and gold plated RCAs and binding posts. The binding posts are clear plasic on the outside and are not the easiest things to turn because they're smoooth, a slightly textured and less pretty binding post would have been nicer, but hey, it's a 4000 buck amp,you should be happy they're not spring clips. The binding posts accept banana plugs and bare wire.  

The power supply is a fairly robust looking switching supply rated at 12v, 5A. I held it up to my ear and didn't hear any noise, which was encouraging.


Some size perspective
The Topping TP20 produces a rated 13W maximum per channel into 8 ohms. But since that is with a 10% THD figure, we'll take the 7W per channel figure which is the maximum power into 8 ohms with a THD of 0.01% as the more relevant figure.  It also uses a not very beefy outboard switching PSU.  
What this means is that some care needs to be exercised in pairing these with speakers.  You cannot put something with an 82 dB sensitivity and and a 4 ohm impedance load in front of this amp.  That would be stupidity.  Make sure that the speakers are rated at least at 86 dB sensitivity (the more the better), and a relatively steady impedance load of at least 6 ohms.  Speakers that have worked well with this amp include the Usher S520, the Odyssey Epiphony and the Cambridge Audio S30.  


I won't beat around the bush here.  This is a dazzling amplifier.  Full disclosure here, that I own this baby, but prior to this I was using an NAD C320BEE (the equivalent of which now costs in the region of Rs. 28,000) and I sold off the NAD after hearing this.  Paired with the Odyssey Epiphony (86 dB, 8 ohms) and a fully modded CD63SE, it paints a revealing and involving sonic potrtait. Superb detail, excellent soundstaging and imaging. Excellent transients, nice airy extended highs, tight, tuneful bass, and some seriously liquid midrange.  

The test tracks I used for this review are:

Steely Dan - Aja, Deacon Blues
Dire Straits - Heavy Fuel, Fade to Black
Usher Demo CD - Track 9 (the chinese drums), Track 10 (vocal and cello)
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos - Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Gramophon) 

The Topping is a light and nimble performer.  The dry, detailed Steely Dan sound is reproduced with unnerring accuracy.  The snare hits are crisp and full bodied.  You can hear the beater strike the skins on the kick drum, rather than hearing a glorified thud.  The guitars and vocals are life-like and engaging.  Each instrument in the mix is distinct and well defined, and stereo image and soundstage are convincingly lifelike.   The transient response is rapid and the leading edges of the notes pop with realism.  Do remember here that this is out-and-out a solid-state amp, and while the mid-range is beautiful and detailed there is none of the enhanced 'body' and 'warmth' of a tube amplifier.  So if that is what you seek, you must look elsewhere.  

Note the gold plated RCA's and the smooth binding posts
Testing the amplifier with demanding percussion reveals that this little creature can really dig deep to put out some convincing low-frequencies, while retaining the detail and musicality of the bass notes.  This is something that several more expensive amplifiers try to do and fail.  What is also impressive is the sheer body and depth of the cello notes on the Usher demo CD.  This amplifier is not just for rock and roll, it works beautifully for jazz and small-ensemble classical  music as well.   To do justice to a philharmonic orchestra of course you need equipment costing at least 10 times the cost of this unit, but even so, the Topping manages to create a musical and involving presentation of the Brandenburg Concertos, without of course being able to do full justice to the sheer scale and dynamic swings of the music.  But hey, remember, how much this amplifier costs!

Pros and Cons


- Detailed, airy, dynamic sound
- Superb imaging and soundstaging
- Ridiculous price-to-performance ratio


- Needs sensitive speakers
- No remote
- Only one input


What can you say about an amplifier that costs Rs. 4000 and can do so many things so well? Paired with the right speakers they handily outperform the budget integrateds mentioned earlier, as well amplifiers costing more.  In fact, I can state with some confidence that you'd be hard pressed to find an amplifier that costs less than Rs. 30,000 that can compete sonically with the Topping TP20 provided you exercise some care in choosing the speakers.  Just for a lark I've tested it with speakers costing over Rs. 2 lakhs (the Usher  Mini Dancer) and it's staggering how impressive the performance of this amplifier is.  The detail, imaging and soundstaging are all in place, it's in the low frequency tightness and grip that it loses out.  

Bottomline, if you can live with only one input and no remote control, and you are looking to spend less than Rs. 30,000 on a stereo amplifier, you owe it to yourself to at least consider the Topping TP20 seriously.