The company’s first product, the A&R Cambridge A60 integrated amplifier, was a fine, worthy design with broad appeal to well healed, middle class audiophiles. Launched in 1976, it sold in huge quantities for a specialist British product, but after ten years on dealers shelves it was looking a bit staid – very much a product of the easy-listening seventies rather than the thrusting, go-getting eighties. In 1985, the company changed its name to Arcam and decided to reinvent itself, and the Delta Black Box [pictured, lower] was an early – and hugely successful part of this.
It has the honour of being Britain’s first standalone DAC. When it came out, there were very few other such products in the world, and the idea of a discrete CD transport and digital-to-analogue converter section was pretty radical stuff. Arcam’s ‘Black Box’ was part of its higher end Delta range (Alpha being entry level), and sold for £299 in the UK.
Effectively, it was the digital end of the company’s £499 Delta 70 CD player [pictured, upper], which itself was a fine piece of kit – featuring Philips 16-bit, 4 times oversampling DAC chip and CDM4 transport with bespoke all-discrete analogue circuitry and custom master clock. Arcam paid a cool £25,000 to Philips for the licence to build CD players, so was very serious about getting everything right!
The Delta Black box was launched in February 1989, and featured a Philips: TDA1514A, 16-bit DAC (now very much regarded as a classic for its highly engaging, musical sound), a single coaxial digital input around the back and just power and phase switches on the front. It worked only at 44.1kHz and had a quoted frequency response of 10Hz to 20kHz, a dynamic range of 96dB, 101dB signal-to-noise ratio, 100dB channel separation and THD of 0.015%. The unit served up the standard 2V CD line-level output, and came in a standard Arcam box measuring 430x64x265mm and weighing 3.5kg.
The matching Delta 170 transport soon followed, a development of the transport section of the Delta 70 CD player with the best bits the company could find inside. This meant specifying the Philips’ seminal CDM1 mk2 diecast aluminium transport, added to which was extensive internal damping and Audioquest Sorbothane feet. Together the £499 170 transport and Black Box DAC made an attractive couple, but were available separately – and it was the latter that sold in large numbers.
Sonically, this dynamic duo is about the best you could do from Compact Disc at the time. For a brief, fleeting moment in 1989 it was arguably the ultimate silver disc spinning combination in the world, before Sony brought out its far more expensive CDP-R1/DAS-R1 combination. It was certainly, in my view, superior to the previous generation TDA1540-equipped Meridian MCD Pro and the Cambridge Audio CD1, which also ran the older Philips CD chipset. Effectively it was the latest and greatest implementation of the first generation 16-bit Philips platform – which was no small thing.
Sonically, the Delta combo was strong, bold, musical and tonally rich with loads of life and energy. The transport was superb, and the DAC excellent too. By the standards of today, the DAC sounds diffuse and a little strident, but still has a wonderfully animated way of making music that feels like you’ve had one too many cups of coffee. Everything is edgy and fast with lots of zing! By comparison, the Bitstream players than followed just eighteen months later were tediously boring, like Mogadon!
The concept was evolved, with the lightly restyled Delta 250/Black Box 50 assuming the mantle of Arcam’s high end CD player a couple of years later, but for me this first version is the definitive one, warts and all. There aren’t that many around, although the Black Box does appear, often for pennies, more frequently – I’ve seen prices as low as £50. Well worth a punt for the chance to hear the TDA1541 DAC in its prime, if nothing else. Don’t go trying to plug your computer into it, though…