There are only a few high-end manufacturers that can pride themselves on being acknowledged as "the best" by non-audiophiles. In the US the brand that one immediately thinks of is McIntosh. One will find McIntosh components in many affluent homes, where its residents most likely didn't consider any brand of audio components; they just wanted "the best". In Japan, most people would agree that Luxman is at the top of that "best" list. They've not only been around since 1925, founded as the Lux Corporation when radio broadcasting first started (incidentally, McIntosh was founded in 1949), but according to their website, "Luxman's history of seeking higher sound quality started from this moment".
C-700u Control Amplifier
Despite Luxman calling the C-700u a control amplifier, it does indeed have many functions of a preamplifier of yore, most notably tone controls, which thankfully one can bypass using a small pushbutton on the unit's front panel labeled "Line Straight", which was activated 99% of the time the unit was in my system. The other one percent was when I fooled with the treble and bass controls for one recording, which I deemed was of poor sound quality to hear what the controls could accomplish. Luxman specifies the bass control to boost or lower the 100Hz frequencies by 8dB, and the treble 8dB at 10kHz. The C-700u also has a loudness control, that all of us of a certain age remember was on just about every single receiver on the market for quite some time.
I used this control a few times just to hear what it could do, and lo and behold, a wave of nostalgia washed over me as I remember late night listening sessions as a kid in my parent's home when I didn't want to disturb them (wake them), but still hear some semblance of the lows and highs I was accustomed to when I cranked up the volume of my receiver during daylight hours. The loudness control affects the same frequencies as the tone controls, but raises the volume of the bass 7dB and the treble 5dB. Whether or not the tone and loudness controls affect transparency or any other traits of the C-700u such as its soundstage or general sense of reality I would need more time to test, but in truth, since I did not "need" to use them, and cherished my time listening to the Luxman gear au naturale, I spent only a short time using these controls to hear what they did.
The Luxman C-700u is the second from the top in their line of four control amplifiers. Luxman claims that a crucial feature of this component's innards is their 4th generation ODNF amp circuit, ODNF is an acronym for their Only Distortion Negative Feedback circuit, which restricts feedback to the circuit's distortion components only, and this in turn betters its signal-to-noise ratio specs, without introducing any phase distortion in the process. This circuit is then coupled to the LECUA 1000 attenuator circuit (Luxman Electric Controlled Ultimate Attenuator), which is used in their flagship C-900u control amplifier. Luxman claims that this discrete electronic attenuator allows for a "fine degree of volume control" and balance adjustment but maintains the sound quality of the unit even at the lowest volume, without introducing any gang errors. Luxman says they employ a "no compromise" approach when it comes to a preamp's properties, which is why the C-700u includes not only the previously mentioned tone controls, but also a loudness control. And the control amplifier also has on its front panel the aforementioned line straight control that bypasses the tone controls and phase selection for the balanced inputs.
There is also a zoom function on the remote that enlarges the display, making it readable from a distance. The C-700u has seven inputs – five of them are single-ended RCA and two balanced XLR. There are four line-level outputs, the most I've seen on any preamp in quite some time, two single-ended and two balanced. One feature on a preamplifier that I'm always glad to see is what we used to call tape monitor input and outputs, these days more likely called monitor input and outputs. The Luxman has them, and throws in for good measure an external preamp input and two "remote output terminals" which are used for "integrated system control". Thankfully the C-700u comes with a remote control that is worthy of a Luxman component, a weighty metal affair that has all the functions located on the front panel and more, including a mute function.
For this review I connected the Luxman C-700u to a Pass Laboratories X350.5 power amplifier using MIT Shotgun S3.3 interconnects terminated with XLR connectors. I sometimes used a Velodyne subwoofer to augment my Sound Lab DynaStat speakers. This is where having a preamp like the Luxman comes in handy -- having four outputs on the rear panel of the C-700u was very convenient, to say the least, as the 15 foot run of cable that runs between it and the subwoofer is single-ended. The balanced and single-ended outputs of the C-700u run simultaneously, so there was no need to genuflect behind the equipment rack to utilize Y-connectors or any other tangle of wires to connect both. Sources include the of course the Luxman D-06u SACD/CD DAC unit, and my analog source, a Gold Note Tuscany or Kesiki Purple Heart phono cartridge mounted on a Tri-Planar 6 tonearm, which in turn is mounted on a Basis Audio Debut V turntable. The turntable has its own power supply which provides a clean sine wave of AC power to its synchronous motor. Setting it at 60Hz spins the platter at 33.33 rpm, and at 81Hz rotates the turntable's platter at 45rmp. The phono preamp is a Pass Labs XP-15.
Rather than make you wait until the end of this review, I'll just cut to the chase: The sonic prowess of the Luxman C-700u was evident from the first day I had it my system. I'm not quite sure if I can quantify how much better sound quality one should expect from upgrading one's preamplifier, but I think it's a safe bet that the law of diminishing returns is going to kick in big time once one goes any higher than Luxman's top-of-the-line C-900u. And because of those laws, at twice the price than the unit that's being reviewed here, it is highly unlikely that it will sound twice as good. But, in my system, with the ancillaries I used, which includes Luxman's own D-06u SACD/CD player/USB DAC, when judged against others in its price range potential owners of a C-700u control amplifier can rest easy, because as far as I'm concerned it has little competition at its price, and quite beyond its price.
Until one gets to the C-900u, and when I think of how good one of those control amplifiers could sound, I can't help but become a bit overwhelmed. That's only when one considered the sound quality of the Luxman C-700u. Yes, that should be the most important trait when considering a component, so the icing on the cake is that the C-700u made the quality of my audiophile life better because of its features, which include, but are not limited to the number of its inputs and outputs, the number of controls offered on its front panel and on its remote, and up to and including the "feel" of its controls and remote. Which are all first-class.
One of the first selections I chose to listen to once I was satisfied the Luxman C-700u was fully broken-in, was Santana's Abraxas, which is often used as a demo disc by audiophiles. The opening wind chimes and piano riff on "Singing Winds & Crying Beasts" can sound arrestingly realistic on some systems, and when played with the Luxman C-700u in my system it certainly does. That intro with the piano and wind chimes is very short lived, so as soon as Carlos Santana's over-amplified Gibson SG enters and is joined by the cymbals of the young drummer Mike Shrieve one realizes that this is hardly an album where the traditional dictum of "real instruments in a real space" can be applied. This hardly matters, though. Have you ever stood next to a guitar amplifier that was playing loud enough for the guitar to feedback, as Santana's does at the end of his short verse? Those wind chimes that entered in the beginning of side one can still be heard on the record while Santana is wailing, but if you were actually in the same room you might be able to see the wind chimes swaying from side to side, but you certainly were going to be able to hear them very well, if at all.
Yet on the recording they are not only audible, but nearly the same volume as the guitar. Yet they were exceptionally realistic sounding. Those who know me will remember that I hardly ascribe to the "real instruments recorded in a real space" as the be all and end all of judging a recording, or the system it is playing through. With that in mind this recording is not only great because of the recording quality but because of the great music that's being recorded on it was recorded in real space – that space being the recording studio – in fact two great West Coast recording studios – Wally Heider's and Pacific Recording. So as the Luxman C-700u renders the instruments on Abraxas to either enter my room, or somehow sonically transport me to San Francisco or just south of it in the case of Pacific Recording in 1970, this Luxman control center or preamplifier or whatever you want to call it injects into my system these heart-stopping abilities. Conga player Mike Carabello and drummer Mike Shreive's interplay creates a lattice of percussion sounds, and the Luxman is somehow able to untangle this percussive meshwork, and at the same time allow the beats to drive the tunes forward.
As a kid, I always thought that on this album there were two drummers, and in fact there are. But one is a conga player, the other plays a full drum kit. The interplay between them is what confounds the mind, and by doing so keeps it active. And it is the maze of polyrhythms that are the forte of the band on this record. When the full band is really cranking it out, such as on the classic rock warhorse "Black Magic Woman" or my favorite, the Gregg Rollie penned "Hope You're Feeling Better", which features his grinding B3 through a distorted Leslie rotating speaker, which never fails to send shivers up my spine, the Luxman C-700u has the uncanny ability to infuse a musical sound that is unparalleled in my experience.
In case you were wondering (and I know you were) the versions of Abraxas I played were from three different copies: The Mobile Fidelity pressing on LP released in 2008, the physical SACD pressed by Mobile Fidelity this year, and a DSD file that was made from an SACD on Columbia released in Europe in 2001 played via the Luxman Audio Player software and sent via USB to be decoded by Luxman's D-06u. This album clearly demonstrates that the C-700u control center has a very musical sound. At first I was tricked into thinking that this Luxman component was somehow sweetening the sound of my records, digital files, and silver discs. But after a while I thought that this might or might not be the case. Because of the C-700u's ability to render the sound of instruments so realistically, I began thinking about the sounds of the actual instruments, voices, and groups of instruments, that the C-700u reproduced, and how they are inherently musical sounding by nature.
The sound of a violin in the hands of a skilled practitioner can bring a grown man to tears, as can the guitar solo on Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" on his Band Of Gypsys album. Yes, one doesn't need an outstanding component or a high priced system to recognize the beauty of music. But when the sound coming forth from a component comes so close to mimicking the real thing as it was recorded (but alas, never exactly like the real thing), these episodes of beauty become not fleeting moments but a spatio-temporal continuum, where time stops and the music becomes the main and only focus of one's cognizance. This is the aural genius of the Luxman C-700u, and you owe it to yourself to hear it for yourself.
D-06u CD/SACD Player With USB Input
The D-06u is the second from the top of Luxman's CD/SACD player line, only bettered by the D-08u CD/SACD player. The D-06u plays discs using a proprietary transport, the LxDTM, with is a "high-rigidity design" that is designed to be immune to external vibration. It uses a die-cast aluminum loader with has a "smooth, quiet, resonance-free operation". I will vouch for their description of having a smooth operation, as it felt as if the tray's functionality to be commensurate not only with the price of this player/converter, but the Luxman name and its standing in the high-end audio industry. When first opening its disc drawer, I was reminded of the first time I opened the tray of a luxury-priced player in an audio salon when I was a much younger man, dreaming of one day having in my system a player such as the ones that were on static display -- that were way out of my league. The D-06u's digital circuits use a Burr-Brown PCM1792A digital-to-analog converter, which of course can support both CD and SACD playback, but can also convert PCM data up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD date as high as 5.64MHz through its USB input. These specs make it as future proof as I can imagine. This Burr-Brown DAC is combined with Texas Instruments TAS3152 32-bit digital signal processor, which up-samples the PCM data to 384kHz and supplies not only three digital filter options for PCM, but two tone setting for DSD. This Luxman player reduces timing errors, which are best known as "jitter", in three ways – when using the USB input, it uses a dedicated DSP via asynchronous communication, for CD and coax (S/PDIF) signals it uses an embedded DAIR high-precision clock, and for SACD it reduces jitter with a dedicated jitter reduction chip. Luxman says that a low phase noise clock module (separate clocks for both 44.1kHz and 48kHz) is used in the D-06u to improve the accuracy of the entire signal.
The analog output stage "is of the highest quality". It has a fully balanced configuration and a regulated, "high-inertia" power supply. Since my music server resides in a PC, I needed to load a driver for using the USB input of the D-06u. Luxman also provides Luxman Audio Player software, which can be used in a Mac as well as a PC. Although the Luxman Audio Player can play just about any audio format under the sun (wav, FLAC, AIFF, etc.), I found to be a plug-and-play solution for playing DSD through the D-06u's USB input. I wish I could say the same for Foobar2000 that I usually use. Although it is possible to play DSD files using Foobar2000, I was forced to spend an awfully long time setting its preference parameters to do so. After a while I became fed up, so using Luxman's player for the entire review period made much more sense. I could hear no sonic differences between the two, and since Luxman's Audio Player was a heck of a lot easier to use, it was my player of choice for the entire review period.
The fit-and finish of the Luxman D-06u is above criticism. Besides its smooth running tray, it was quick to recognize any file I played through it. I have a very large library of DSD and high-resolution files that I can play through the D-06u, but an even larger arsenal of plain old "CD-quality" 44.1kHz/16-bit files. The D-06u performed as if it couldn't give a hoot whether I was playing the highest resolution file on the planet, or a crappy mp3 that was converted from cassette tape, or a CD that I bought in 1986 that had been sitting in my car's glove box for 3 years. It played these files and discs with the same type of finesse, and operated throughout the review period without complaint. The bad old days of a store bought disc that "won't play" are over for any owner of a Luxman D-06u. As with the D-700u control amplifier, the remote that is supplied with the D-06u is a weighty metal wand that is a perfect match for this seemingly bullet-proof player/converter.
As I am wont to say, as good as the specs and features of a component may be, it is the sound quality of a component that is its most important to me. I don't think that is strange, at least it shouldn't be if one considers themselves to be an audiophile. So, it was quite a treat to discover that the sound quality of the D-06u was its most impressive feature. Personally, I'm an analog kind of guy, and if I'm going to enjoy digital to the fullest when giving the music my full time and attention, it has to have extremely few or no digital artifacts – those sonic blemishes distract me from the music, even if those blemishes are very small. It's only been in the last decade that I've heard digital playback that I can ooh and aah over. And thankfully, the technology has reached the point where one doesn't have to take out a second mortgage to afford this type of playback. OK, I'll admit that the price of the D-06u, at around $10k, isn't chump change, (though Luxman also offers the D-05u for $5k). But to get this type of sonic performance only a short time ago would cost not more, but much, much more. Not only that, but with the Luxman D-06u player/DAC in my system I spent a good part of my time playing files through the D-06u's USB input, and I can honestly say that I was captivated in my listening seat by the music coming forth from this component before it was even fully broken-in. Its break-in takes a considerably long time, so I hope none hear an unbroken-in version of this player and think that this is all that there is. Once fully broken in I was able to revel in the sound quality of the Luxman D-06u, and thus the music.
I'm not lazy. I don't mind getting out of my listening seat to hunt for an SACD and put it in the player's drawer. I still play 45rpm seven inch singles, after all! But the sound of the D-06u when playing these silver discs in lieu of its files on my computer is the best I've heard from any player. I played many files through the D-06u, but in the end I spent much more time than I usually do playing physical SACDs. The reason I first started filling my external hard drives on my music server with music was because storing the files on my hard drive rather than playing the discs in the player's drawer in real-time sounded better. Not so with the Luxman D-06u.The difference wasn't a huge one, I still spent plenty of time listening to all types of files through the D-06u, and enjoyed them immensely. But when it came to DSD files vs. physical SACD, the SACD sounded a bit better; richer, fuller. Why is this? I don't know. But if I had to guess it would be because the engineers that designed the D-06u had the resources and materials to make this player one of the best on the planet in its price range and above its price range.
As I'm writing this I'm trying to think of which artist's SACD would be best to describe the sonic attributes of the D-06u. The problem is that I listened to so many discs, and heard so many stereotypical examples of what one would want in a playback system, and the D-06u would not only deliver the sonic goods every time, it also did so on every disc I played. The sound quality of the Luxman D-06u has many of the same traits as the C-700u control amplifier. Except in the back of my mind I was always keeping my ears peeled, attempting to hear those digital nasties, even if just a smidgen, that I've been accustomed to hearing all these years. This search was in vain. But one quality did constantly appear, and that was the way this Luxman player was able to separate instruments and groups of instruments that were playing at the same volume. This is an awfully tough trait to describe, since most assume I'm describing micro or macro-dynamics. But the quality I'm attempting to describe I've come across before, but usually when describing vacuum tube components – the ability to create a dynamic distance between sounds. The old adage of music not being the notes, but the space between the notes rings true. The space between the instruments and voices separate to the point to where one can hear that space, as in life when listening to an un-mic'd ensemble, where the sound of the space is heard, the space between the players and singers. The D-06u has this characteristic in spades.
No, SACDs played through the D-06u didn't sound like the best LP played on my turntable. The SACDs played on the D-06u sounded like music, and what I mean by that is that it didn't sound like I was listening to any format at all. The music played. I listened. Do you want specifics? You know what I'm about to write, don't you? That in addition to the dynamic distance I spoke of, the D-06u has a huge soundstage, imaging is pinpoint, highs reach to the limits of my hearing with no smearing, sibilance, or anything else that would get in the way of these highs, that the lows of the D-06u also seem limitless in their extension, with a super-tight transient response, superb pitch specificity, and absolutely no mid-bass hump, and that the mids were extremely transparent and aided in constructing the perfectly scaled soundstage and the realistic and complex imaging? No, I'm not going to write that. I'll only write that if that was how that particular SACD sounded. Some SACDs were a paragon of transparency, as if I could close my eyes and imagine that I was peering through a sonic window to observe the musicians. The Channel Classics hybrid SACD of Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Mahler's Second Symphony sounded like that. If you like Mahler, I highly recommend this SACD. It not only sounds great but it is an excellent version of Mahler's masterpiece.
Did the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs SACD of Bob Dylan's Highway 61 have all the sonic traits that I listed above, and sound like I was peering into the recording session that was captured on a four-track tape recorder through a transparent sonic window? Not quite, but it certainly sounded the best I've ever heard it. But I can listen to it on a 1965 Panasonic transistor radio and have it elicit quite a bit of emotion. Yet it is through the Luxman D-06u that I felt more connected to the album and its contents than ever before. As with the Luxman C-700u you owe it to yourself to hear the D-06u for yourself. You might disagree with my findings, though. There's a good chance you'll think my descriptions are understatements.
D-06u CD/SACD Player With USB Input
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