It is 1989, and the hi-fi world is a very different place. We’re still in the midst of an intense debate on the merits, or otherwise, of digital audio – and unless you’re one of a handful of hi-fi hacks around the world with early access to the new ‘Digital Audio Tape’ format running at a giddy 48kHz sampling frequency, ‘digital audio’ means Compact Disc in all its 16bit, 44.1kHz glory…
At this time, lest we forget, ‘digital’ was not quite yet a fait accompli. There was a strong renegade audiophile community who still believed in vinyl, and still bought all their music on vinyl – well, because you could! There were some very erudite people – Linn’s Ivor Tiefenbrun and Naim’s Julian Vereker to name but two – who were publicly pronouncing that vinyl was their favoured format (even if both companies were just about to launch CD spinners)…
In the minds of its detractors, the main objection to ‘digital’ (i.e. CD) was its harshness. Interestingly, listening to the self-same players that were once accused of being ‘fiercely forward’ doesn’t quite yield the same feelings of extreme aural agony. This is partly because eighties hi-fi, and those nasty early metal dome tweeters in particular, was pretty forward and hard sounding. Through modern, well matched systems, mid-eighties CD spinners are ‘vivid’ alright, but not quite as horrid as was once thought.
The root of the problem was in no small part a silicon chip going by the name of the Philips TDA1541 digital-to-analogue convertor. This, the first 16-bit, 4 times oversampling design, arrived in 1985, replacing the original 14-bit, 4 times oversampling TDA1540, which was a far softer, vaguer and fluffier thing. The ’41 was fizzy; it had a tremendous ‘zing’ to it, due to it throwing out higher amounts of distortion that were really desirable. Now, I’m not knocking it, because in some ways, I think this is the best fun ever DAC – it’s brilliantly musical and a real ‘seat of the pants’ player – but smooth and languid it never was…
All Philips and Marantz players, along with a wide variety of other Japanese machines (such as the Sony CDP-557ES, etc.), boasted the ’41. It was implemented in a number of different ways (and in later years even claimed, as with Sony for example, as giving 18-bit, 8 times oversampling), but it was always instantly recognisable – such was its zippy, peppy, grippy sound.
Although Marantz made much of its skills at tweaking the CD players of its (then) parent company Philips, Philips regarded the CD player separates market as a premium place to be seen, and made a range of very respectable CD players, from 1982’s CD100 to 1990’s CD950. All (obviously) used the latest Philips DACs, and indeed were often the first to get them. And so it was with the 1988 CD850, which was a high quality £400 machine (it would be in the region of £1,000 now, so certainly wasn’t a budget design) with – if not quite ‘battleship’ then – sturdy build. With the early, now revered, Philips CDM1 ‘swing arm’ mechanism, it was a fine sounding player; lively and engagingly musical; but no one quite expected that half way through its life it would have its heart ripped out and suffer a totally novel transplant in the shape of the SAA7350 DAC.
Okay, so a CD player gets a new DAC – so what? Well, it was the first implementation of Philips’ brand new Differential Mode Bitstream converter, and imbued the player with a special sound. The (then) unique architecture of the chip measured, in some respects, extremely differently. Distortion was quite a lot lower, and this manifested itself in a consummately smoother and more even sound right across the audio band. But there was more to it than that, because the character of the music was different too; you could say more considered, more analytical even, with superior midband detail, a more expansive soundstage and a finer, smoother and more subtle treble. In short, it didn’t sound ‘digital’ as most people understood it.
In today’s climate – where Bitstream DACs are omnipresent – this might not sound terribly dramatic stuff, but the CD850 II was where digital came of age. It became smoother, more detailed and far more accessible. This last point is important, because Bitstream DACs were cheaper to make, and ushered in a whole new world of affordable CD spinners, and then portables, which firmly put analogue on the fringes of the hi-fi world, where it has resided – and in truth thrived – ever since.
To get a gauge of how significant the SAA7350 (and its ilk) were, it’s interesting to hear a non-Bitstream DAC now. You soon realise how odd, or perhaps I should say, ‘exotic’, a TDA1541 DAC now sounds; in today’s hi-fi world where Bitstream is ubiquitous, the first Philips 16-bit ‘multibit’ DAC is a truly racy, thrilling and yet horribly compromised thing. Two dimensional, edgy, glassy, characterful and extremely rhythmically engaging, it’s a bit like going back to twin carburettors in a world of fuel injected car engines. It’s tonally troublesome, musically temperamental and not to everyone’s taste. The SAA7350 aspirated Philips CD850 II is, by comparision, neat and tidy and refined – just like every other modern silver disc spinner. This is how it started.
Parts for the early Philips ‘swing arm’ mechs are rare as hens’ teeth, but the good news is that they’re actually very hardy things. The Philips CD850 II will never make big money on the secondhand market, but find a minter in perfect working order and it’s a lot of sound per pound at around £100.