Unlike many manufacturers Denon still makes at least some of its hardware in Japan, a fact that certainly separates the company from almost all of its competition in the budget audio sector. It’s remarkable that it can build such competitive products without relying on cheap labour from the PRC. But the DCD- 1500AE is a £500 player with “Made in Japan” written on both box and product – let’s hope it’s not just a case of ‘assembled in’ as can be found with some ‘Made in England’ products. Denon is part of a Japanese conglomerate called D&M Holdings, which also owns Marantz and McIntosh alongside Snell and Boston Acoustics. Being part of something so big must give it opportunities to keep costs down, but given the nature of the organisation profitability is still fundamental. However, despite that reality, this player still cares enough about performance to claim a UK-tuned sound.
Todays DCD-1500AE is an SACD/CD player, but it’s a product designation that many readers will remember from the halcyon days as being a benchmark among mid-market CD players, one of the first 16bit 4x o/s machines and the most affordable player to make serious music. Back then if you couldn’t afford a Meridian 207 it was the DCD- 1500 you aimed for. It even had a variable output option, encouraging early experiments with direct connection to power amps. I have to admit that it’s a name that I had forgotten but a quick search revealed its 1985 vintage and the fondness with which it is regarded is reflected in the fact that people are still using and tinkering with them today. Perhaps oddly it is not referred to on the Denon website which mentions 1982’s DCD-2000 as ‘the world’s first consumer use CD player’, something that Philips and Sony might have difficulty agreeing with! That original DCD-1500 also cemented Denon’s reputation for build quality with its battleship construction. A MkII version was released in 1987 which featured Lambda processing, a pre-cursor to the Alpha processing still in use today so perhaps the nomenclature isn’t as fanciful as it seems.
The new DCD-1500AE is still a fairly chunky machine given its asking price, if not quite as hefty as its namesake. It has a shaped aluminium facia and the sort of folded steel chassis that you find on most affordable electronics these days, along with the usual selection of socketry for digital and analogue outputs. Operationally it is very smooth; you’ll not hear this drawer mechanism clunking about as you do with many smaller brands at far more elevated prices. This seems to be an area where the Japanese excel, giving their machines a reassuring sense of solid quality that the rest of the world struggles to match unless it purchases Japanese mechanisms. But from what one hears you have to be talking big numbers or big money to do this, so a lot of European brands end up with clunky Philips mechs which leave a lot to be desired in the swishyness department. I notice Cyrus has gone over to slot drives now, which is one way of alleviating the problem.
It can’t hurt that Denon makes a surprisingly wide range of CD players, considering that it also goes large on home cinema amplification and sources. With six models in the range it must have more than just about any other brand.
The DCD-1500AE sits two down from the top of this group and offers two-channel only SACD playback from a 24-bit/192kHz Burr Brown PCM1791 converter. Arguably less relevant are various Denon specific features that include SVH (or Supress Vibration Hybrid, which despite sounding like something has been lost in translation indicates some means of stopping the chassis from resonating at the wrong frequencies) and AL24 processing, which according to the Denon glossary “supports multi-channel DVD-Audio for all channels” (which doesn’t really help as in this case it clearly doesn’t but we will assume that it is some form of DSP that’s intended to improve resolution; that’s usually the plan anyway). Foibles include text display for SACD only and a ‘Pure Audio’ option that leaves the machine looking dormant as all illumination is extinguished. What no flashing lights!
More importantly, and rather like its historical precursor, this Denon represents something of a sonic benchmark and is the best I’ve heard at its price point; possessing significantly more spirit and vitality than the competition it definitely warrants some attention. It doesn’t compete with players at four times the price, but then only the real optimists amongst you would expect it to. What it does is deliver a musically engaging and revealing result for less than the price of a single speed hardtail (one of the sillier variations on the mountain bike theme, for all you non-cyclists out there). Or to give you an easier analogy, it costs less than a half decent moving-coil cartridge. It is not, unfortunately, a giant slayer but you will have to spend around twice as much to get a worthwhile upgrade. Press the ‘Pure Audio’ button, which as well as defeating the display also kills the digital output, and its qualities become apparent. These include impressive finesse thanks to the smooth clean nature of the presentation; so much so that it gives the impression of digging deeper into the detail than is actually the case, which is both clever and odd. A more expensive player will reveal quite a lot more about the instruments and voices in the mix but this delivers them with such apparent calm that you think you are hearing right into the music. It also does a decent job in the timing department, pulling a groove along in a steady, consistent fashion thanks to a nimbleness in the bass and decent definition of leading edges. Pioneer’s PDD6 (£400) is a more relaxed player which will suit some tastes or music better but as a result it falls short in the temporal department with upbeat music. The Denon also betters it with SACD where its skills in producing good solid imagery come to the fore.
For many listeners, the ability to play SACDs will be a little extra icing on the cake, a nice freebie rather than a major reason to choose the DCD- 1500AE over the CD-only competition. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t investigate the possibilities offered by these discs. The Denon might not do so much with the more refined format that you will feel compelled to search out the high definition discs at every opportunity, but it does enough to quietly and clearly reveal their relative strengths compared to CD. And it does so as well as the likes of Pioneer’s new PD-D9 at £600. That machine has better build quality and arguably nicer (or at least more “high-end”) looks, but it is so close in character to the Denon that you can’t really split them without resorting to minutiae, while the extra £100 you’ll still have in your wallet/account/credit limit can make a serious difference to overall system quality if carefully spent. Being a relatively affordable piece of equipment the DCD-1500AE does inevitably have its shortcomings but these should not be too obvious in an appropriately priced system. Specifically, the high frequencies are not as solid and pure as dearer players and inevitably the dynamics are limited in absolute terms. That said it is a more dynamic machine than its rivals and this was one area in which it clearly distinguished itself, something that is quite likely to be related to the UK tuning factor. Pure Japanese Denons tend to be a little too refined, for my UK tastes at least, but this avoids that particular trap.
This incarnation of the DCD- 1500, despite the aforementioned tuning, is also more refined sounding than its UK designed competitors. Cambridge’s popular Azur 740C at the same price point has a considerably more gritty and forward character, which might make it more appealing with less transparent systems so long as they are not too bright. Even in an unsuitably high-end system the Cambridge might have an edge with quieter, more relaxed music, but as soon as things get heavier, more complex or more lively, especially with material that you want to play at full bore, then the Denon’s smooth, relaxed character and musical versatility is the tool for the job.